Last October, two of Uruguay’s former presidents, Julio María Sanguinetti and José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, retired their Senate seats in an emotional ceremony, a moment which seemed to be something of a civic instruction class for Argentines.
In a feature-length interview, Sanguinetti, one of the patriarchs of Uruguayan politics, explains how social democratic and liberal traditions function in his homeland. In the eyes of the 85-year-old, who served two terms in office as president representing the Partido Colorado, the antidote to populism resides in strong institutions.
The bicentenary of the first recognition of the independence of the United Provinces of the River Plate by Portuguese monarch (later Brazilian Emperor) Pedro I is being celebrated. If you were writing the history of the parallel lives, how would you trace the difference between the two banks of the River Plate?
As always, history answers that question. We were part of a problem which still exists in Argentina: the difficulty of interweaving political and social institutions. A society as evolved as the Argentine whose political institutions nevertheless always suffered from lagging behind the country’s seething creativity and its brilliant individuals. I sometimes say that Uruguay and Argentina are very similar but should do a swap. We are more institutional, Argentina a bit less so. Argentine society is highly creative, ours calmer, expecting more things from the state.
That’s a result of history. When the Spanish empire collapsed, leaving things up to us, Buenos Aires took over as the heir of the Viceroyalty of the River Plate, which had been born in 1776, a very belated and military creation, fundamentally to guard the frontier with Portugal. Paraguay and High Peru (now Bolivia) both declared their independence with the riverside provinces and ourselves as homologues in some ways. What is today Uruguay was still not a province. In reality it was Montevideo plus some scattered territories to the north depending on Yapeyú, the birthplace of José de San Martín.
Our revolutionary methods were always institutional and that’s where the divorce and the problem originated, shall we say. In 1813 our revolution had already defined itself as independence. That had not happened in Buenos Aires and would only do so in Tucumán (1816). We had already said loud and clear that we were a republic with the separation of powers and civil and religious liberties in their fullest extension, defining itself on the basis of those pronouncements. In 1816 Argentina declared its independence, as communicated to us by Juan Martín de Pueyrredón and José Artigas replied: “We’ve already considered ourselves independent for over a year.” But in 1816 Argentina had yet to define itself as a republic – there were still monarchical schemes.
Only in the course of time did we end up becoming an independent republic, 17 years after the start of the revolution to recognise the independence of our republic. In those 17 years an identity was forged, always revolving around institutions understood as independent, republican and confederate. The Constitution of that sovereign province expressly delegated only defence and foreign affairs to the state. We were all in that together – Córdoba, Corrientes, Entre Ríos, Misiones and us. We confronted Buenos Aires because of our confederate ideas which finally led to independence while our other provincial partners from that period ended up within the Argentine federal state.
How does Uruguay take to being the classic example of a buffer state between Brazil and Argentina, geopolitically something akin to Mongolia between Russia and China, Iraq between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Finland previously between the Swedish and Russian empires, or Nepal between China and India. Montevideo was first founded by the Portuguese, did that also condition your link with Brazil?
Without a doubt. We are children of that dispute. We crafted our nationality in that battle of the frontiers with Brazil, not from Spain, and then our autonomy clash with Buenos Aires in a rivalry also dating back from colonial times over the ports, a port rivalry with Buenos Aires which continues to this day. We forged our national identity in that tussle – the frontier with Portugal first, Brazil later and Argentina afterwards. That’s why we had a very particular relationship.
I often say that we Uruguayans are cross-eyed with one eye on Buenos Aires and the other on São Paulo. You will ask me why we did not stay alongside the Argentine provinces. The answer is because our concept was a confederation and republican self-determination from the very first day, which led us to breaking off and separating from the governments of Buenos Aires.
When you go over Uruguay’s 20th century history, the country comes across as the “Switzerland of the Americas.” Uruguay progressed enormously during both world wars, winning the World Cup with the Maracanazo (1950), as well as Olympic champions in Paris (1924) and Amsterdam (1928), the country which first had lay education and divorce, laws ahead of their times, before beginning in the 1960s a decline which also marked Argentina. The disappearance of conflict in Europe eliminated opportunities for our countries but in the case of Argentina the deterioration was much greater. The explanation given by some economists is that Argentina, due to the size of its market, constructed an industry on the basis of import substitution which Uruguay could not develop, an industry which became obsolete with globalisation. How did those parallel lives unfold in their economies?
Let’s start with the first half of your question, without which nothing can be explained. Between 1903 and 1915 Uruguay built those basic institutions known in Europe as the welfare state, which we could call ‘republican solidarity’ or ‘progressive liberalism’ or ‘social democracy,’ to use the European term. All that is identified with the [Colorado] governments of José Batlle Ordóñez. That was the moment of advanced social legislation, laws for industrial accidents, the eight-hour day (1915), all the humane legislation like abolishing the death penalty and divorce only if the wife so wished, so you might talk of positive discrimination. It was a very advanced republican construction which incorporated the mass immigration from the last third of the previous century into the system, making a middle class out of the working masses. That came later in Argentina.
That is one of the keys for understanding what happened in the second half, over and above the plans. The governments of Hipólito Yrigoyen had serious social conflicts, postponing social reform and followed by coups d’états as from 1930. Then came the Peronist phenomenon, vindicating a social question which seemed legitimate although due to its delay, it had that authoritarian ingredient which unfortunately came to characterise it. That did not happen in Uruguay because there had already been a much stronger process of social integration.
By the second half of the 1950s import substitution had run its course. There were companies born out of shortages, something which economists sometimes do not measure well. In a world of enormous shortages there was a need. I heard [Argentine economist] Raúl Prebisch himself say: “I did not construct doctrine, I merely administered a fact.” That’s what happened.
But none of that explains the process of our institutional slump between 1973 and 1985. As I see it, that was something strictly political, inspired by the Cuban Revolution. The year 1959 marked a milestone in the history of Latin America. “Revolution” became a magic word, the answer to all evils. Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara was in Uruguay in 1961, making his historic speech at the University. He said: “I know Latin America throughout and this is the most democratic country of them all. The Uruguayan government does not share my ideas and yet I can proclaim them from every corner. My friends, you have much to cherish here. I believe that violence is the last resort but in the face of authoritarian systems you always know when the first shot is fired but not the last.” That was very tough. In 1963 the Socialist Party made a radical shift towards the road to guerrilla activity. That generated a lot of political conflict. There is always a soil in which a seed is more fertile. If you take the Cuban Revolution and the Tupamara guerrillas out of the Uruguayan narrative , you do not understand the coup d’état because there was no military activism as in Argentina from 1930. Those are important differences.
Between 1950 and 1955 we had very difficult moments of confrontation between the Uruguayan government and the Argentina of Juan Perón due to the activities of Argentine exiles in Uruguay, fundamentally the radio journalists questioning much of that régime. We are talking of similar but not analogous histories, of earlier and more advanced social reforms in Uruguay than in Argentina and more within the institutions.
Despite that, here comes the sin of pride for which we paid. We believed ourselves to be the fathers of democracy and still it fell. In that process of guerrilla destabilisation between 1963 and 1971, there was no problem with military issues – the police took care of the guerrillas and so well that by the time we were approaching the elections of November, 1971, the Tupamaros were all in a jail which is now a shopping centre – a changing world. José ‘Pepe’ Mujica was among them. And then just two months before the elections, the prisoners all escaped. It was an episode which naturally shook up all the national structures – almost akin to the fall of the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. It was tremendous. That was when the government entrusted the Army with security tasks just two months before the election and that is how the new government of Juan María Bordaberry stayed in power. The Army sprang into action and within seven months had liquidated the guerrillas. The Armed Forces then became drunk with power and took over the government in a Messianic spirit. Nothing excuses them from that responsibility but nor are there any excuses for allowing guerrillas who sought to instal a system by violent means from establishing themselves in a democratic country.
Uruguayan political parties seem more traditional and European. Your Colorados had points in contact with unitarians, progressives and social democrats, as you used the term, whereas the Blancos were federal, conservative, more protectionist and centre-right. In Argentina Peronism has divided everything up with conservatives and progressives, populists and anti-populists on both sides. How would you establish a categorical division between the two sides?
In the 19th century the Colorado Party was liberal and republican with Giuseppe Garibaldi as its emblem while the National Party (Los Blancos) were more conservative and on the side of law and order, passing to be more liberal economically as well as conservative in the early 20th century, while we became more social democratic, so that in doctrinal terms it would be liberal conservatives versus republican and social democrats.
But in Uruguay there has been a very important change in recent years – the eruption of leftist parties, Socialist or Communist, which had no room previously because the social reformism of the Colorados and Batlle Ordóñez left them none. Nevertheless, they grew and eventually the Socialists, Communists and Christian Democrats teamed up into a very strong leftist movement, so much so that they came to power, forming a ruling coalition which governed for 15 years until very recently, while today they are still the largest single party.
Now there is a new alternative. The other historic parties with liberal roots and more or less reformist have formed another coalition, including even a Christian Democratic sector of the left. Various parties have thus teamed up in two spaces. It sounds strange that Communists and Tupamaros should be with a Christian Democratic sector but that’s the way it is. On our side it is rather more homogeneous although now there is also a party more to the right. That has been produced by demographic changes. The old Blanco/Colorado dualism is today the Frente Amplio (“Broad Front”), versus a ruling republican coalition.
How do you analyse the phenomenon of the number of Argentines who have come to live in Uruguay in the last two or three years, establishing residence and paying taxes?
The reasons are emotional and psychological more than anything else. Psychological because Argentines (above all, porteños) coming from a city always so dramatically shaken up to our calm start to feel good, leaving their problems on the other side of the river.
There is also a historic social contagion. Argentines always come to Uruguay for the summer while Uruguayans cross over to Buenos Aires and the Argentine provinces throughout the year. That way you get combined families. My sister has been living in Argentina for over 50 years, my nephews and nieces are Argentine while one of my brothers is also an Argentine citizen. There is a psychological and spiritual wellbeing linked to Uruguay and nobody feels that they are emigrating.
I’m often asked where I would live if not in Uruguay. I love Paris and I could live in Madrid, beyond any doubt, but the only country where I do not feel myself to be a foreigner is Argentina. I think that’s what Argentines feel when they come to live with us. They perceive themselves as being in the same society, the same culture, the same family.
The political scientist Andrés Malamud calls your country the “República Occidental del Uruguay” in his Twitter account. Beyond that wisecrack, is Uruguay the most Western country in South America?
Uruguay is a very Western country, born out of a peace agreement between the Brazilian Empire and the Argentine provinces. We entered international life looking to Britain and France, with whom we had reciprocal agreements to preserve that independence we had won on the battlefield between 1811 and 1828, first against the Spanish, then against Buenos Aires and later against the Portuguese and the Brazilians.
Our independence was the result of 17 years of war against those who did not understand our profoundly republican and liberal mentality. Our institutions were North American, you have to understand that. José Artigas was a United States republican who had read Thomas Paine’s book – he was a gaucho and a Spanish soldier but he had read that. His influences were liberalism and the republican institutions of the United States. Uruguay has a very strong French influence, as well as liberalism. Esteban Echeverría wrote his socialist dogmas here. José Mármol, Juan Cruz and Florencio Varela (assassinated in Montevideo) were all here. We forged a profoundly Western sense of civilisation confronting the feudal nationalism of Juan Manuel de Rosas. In the face of that we were Western liberalism. Since most of them were intellectuals, a lot was written about these things.
As a small country, in order to survive we had to team up, sometimes with France, sometimes with Britain, sometimes with Brazil, against Argentina. When in 1906 Foreign Minister Alejandro Ceballos said that the River Plate was completely Argentine with a very strong backlash from Uruguay, the Baron of Rio Branco showed up from Brazil to establish new criteria for dividing the waters. In order to preserve its identity, Uruguay had to seek a balancing-act, which is the basis of Western values. Our sense of nationality or patriotism is what Jürgen Habermas would call constitutional patriotism.
What is your opinion of the concept of ‘lawfare,’ as brandished by [ex-Brazil president Luiz Inácio] Lula [da Silva] and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner?
Lula was a democratic ruler. He was a trade unionist interlocked in the socio-economic system of Brazilian production. No need to explain big business to him after spending years negotiating with the auto giants. He was a man of the system in the good sense of the word and acted as such. He was a ruler with whom we might agree or disagree but he was inside the system. The phenomenon of corruption unfortunately dragged him elsewhere to other scenarios.
The Kirchners were very tough on us Uruguayans and not because of our government, because it was Frente Amplio, José Mujica himself, who felt himself to be their friend. Tabaré Vázquez, the greatest Frente Amplio leader during all these 15 years, was confronted over the pulp mills across the river from Gualeguaychú by a populist action exceeding the limits of the law and normal international relations.
Even with discrepancies, we are in a different situation today. Our presidents have had difficult moments but our president also went to Argentina to visit Alberto Fernández. He did well because they are thus obliged to understand one another.
‘With Mujica we wanted to give a message of civic example’
Your embrace with José ‘Pepe’ Mujica prompted envy in Argentina. You commented: “In no way is Argentina condemned to its famously fatal grieta confrontation. What we did with Mujica was very simple, we left the Senate together, sending a message.” Looking at Uruguayan history, there were evidently wars between Colorados and Blancos in the 19th century. Was what we call grieta in Argentina resolved in Uruguay 100 years ago?
That 19th century process, which was tremendous and played out on the battlefield, also ended in great reconciliations – in an agreement and an amnesty. The last war in 1904 was tremendous. In the battle of Tupambae there were armies of 5,000 or 6,000 men on each side. My two grandfathers took different sides. I’m the great-grandson of a great Blanco caudillo, killed in 1897 in a legendary and romantic lance charge against Colorado troops. I’m Colorado due to my family and my vision of history but I had both traditions at home. That’s something which happened in Uruguay. But all the revolutions were in the name of institutions. It was not one caudillo against another, José Batlle against Aparicio Saravia. It was Saravia defending one form of government and an electoral system against Batlle pushing a strong state to carry out social reforms. They were political projects and the battle was over which of the two was the more constitutional.
Uruguay’s past should not be idealised. Today’s political debate is very fierce – you only need to watch television. The important thing is not to run each other down. The grieta is born when one side does not recognise itself as being part of the same country as the other, when one believes themselves to be the fatherland while the other is the country’s enemy. You can debate over who is more conservative or progressive, that’s natural.
That message given with Mujica was a coincidence. I was thinking of leaving the Senate because I had said I would before the elections. Beforehand I was dedicating myself to books and party life. Like an old uncle or tribal witch doctor, I was telling stories to the young. I had to return for various reasons and I had said that it would not be for more than 12 or 18 months. Mujica had been hit pretty hard by the pandemic and he said that he wanted out so I proposed that we leave together. And we agreed that it would be nice to show young people how two politicians who had confronted each other, initially as enemies – because he was armed to the teeth while I was part of the democratic government persecuting them – could pass from being foes to political adversaries, who had to co-exist within the institutions without ever losing the capacity for dialogue. We told the young people to argue and defend their ideas passionately but always knowing that we must be under the same law and that Congress is our lay temple of democracy. We must all respect each other beyond what we think. That was the message. The people understood it happily, save for some radicals on one side or the other. It was hailed as a civic example not only in Argentina but also in many other countries of Latin America. That’s what we were trying to do.